I can’t stop playing Mario Kart 8. It’s been out since May, but it still accounts for about a third of my gaming time. Part of this is because I haven’t picked up Super Smash Brother WiiU yet. I’m sure it’ll suck up huge chunks of my free time once I do, but I almost don’t want to buy it because I know it’ll pull me away from Mario Kart 8. I’ve played every Mario Kart release since the original, but I can honestly say that 8 is my favorite of the bunch. Looking back on all the previous Mario Kart titles, it seems like each one has introduced new elements that have become part of the canon over the years, eventually culminating in 8, which is like a genetic wonder that inherits the best of its ancestors with none of their weaknesses.
Super Mario Kart kicked off the series, but I have to say that it’s one of my least-favorites. I didn’t play it much as a kid, and the courses are dull and samey compared to later games. Most tracks have multiple iterations and few jumps or hazards due to the graphical and processing limitation of the SNES. Still, it introduced Green Shells, Red Shells, Mushrooms, Bananas, Lightning, and Stars. These core items were fundamental in every succeeding game.
Mario Kart 64 is, for me, the real start of the series. The introduction of 3D graphics and varied track layouts created what we really think of as being Mario Kart. 64 added power sliding, drafting opponents, more shortcuts, more hazards, and the almighty blue shell, ruiner of friendships. Yoshi Valley sticks out for me because of the many different paths to take and the way the game doesn’t tell you what place you’re in until the end.
Each game since has refined the controls, tweaked the item balance, and pushed the envelope for how big and complex tracks can be. Double Dash added spark boosts to power sliding and a larger character roster, Mario Kart Wii added trick boosting and classic courses, and Mario Kart 7 added gliding segments, underwater segments, and single-lap courses with three sections. MK8 cherry picks these elements while forgoing unnecessary elements like character-specific items in Double Dash and the overpowered item draw and rubber banding of Wii.
So is the refined gameplay why I love Mario Kart 8 so much? It’s a huge part of it, but it’s not the whole story. I think MK8’s mechanics are the best Mario Kart has ever been, but it’s not like they’re beyond reproach. Red shells seem downright overpowered now. They can follow you through the air and over jumps now, as they did in MK7, and they’re harder to defend against since you can no longer drag a shell or banana peel behind you and grab a second item at the same time. Triple Red shells still come up with decent frequency for lower placed racers, and first place has a good chance of getting nothing but coins from item boxes. It’s easy to get screwed over in first place, but honestly, that’s part of the fun of Mario Kart, so I’m not complaining.
Track design definitely plays a role. MK8 has an amazing roster of sixteen original tracks as well as sixteen classic tracks that have been completely redesigned to accomodate more racers and to add in anti-gravity, hang-gliding, and underwater segments. Being able to drive upside down is dizzyingly fun, but spectacle alone can’t carry a track. My favorite tracks in 8, such as Thwomp Ruins or Piranha Plant Slide, are full of shortcuts, boosts, curves, and short hops that add lots of chances to optimize through trick boosting and power sliding. They also have unique hazards that vary from lap to lap, forcing you to really be on your toes. I like that sort of challenge, and it doesn’t hurt that they have great music and art design to pull you in.
There’s still more to it, though. MK8 is the first Mario Kart title to really take advantage of the internet. With previous Mario Kart titles, my primary enjoyment was playing with friends late at night in our college dorm. But after college it became harder to get a group together for four-player Mario Kart. Some friends move away, and others lose interest quickly. Without a regular group to play with, Mario Kart ceases to be fun. Racing against the computer just isn’t as big a challenge as racing humans, and it isn’t nearly as satisfying to beat it. Being able to hop online and play with a full team of twelve decent racers is a huge plus.
Mario Kart Wii had online features, but they didn’t work nearly as well as in 8. Let’s be honest, Nintendo has a (deserved) reputation for crappy online service compared to Microsoft and Sony. I didn’t expect MK8’s online versus to be any good at all, but it works pretty damn well. I can go from deciding to play to being in a race in about five minutes, and only rarely do I have to spectate or get booted due to connection issues. It could be better, but it works fine for what it is. I get to destroy racers from all over the world with a maniacally laughing Ludwig von Koopa, and that pleases me greatly.
One of the biggest draws of MK8 is the addition of DLC. I usually don’t care for DLC, because I think it’s not worth the value of paying extra for a full-price game, but 8 changed my tune. Nintendo is giving us two packs of eight new tracks each for about $12. The first of these gives us Hyrule Circuit, which isn’t the best track from a racing standpoint, but has become a favorite online because, shit, it’s Hyrule.
I guess it’s a combination of everything. MK8 gives us all the best of previous games, stunning new visuals, anti-grav sections, functional online versus mode, and high-value DLC. It seems perfectly designed to get me to play it and never stop.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go play some Mario Kart.